I can see that Victoria Azarenka made the most of those long months when the sport was paused because of Covid-19. This is a new Vika, who played some of the best tennis of her life at the US Open, where she came within a set of beating Naomi Osaka to win her first Grand Slam title in seven years.
Before the global pandemic, I felt as though Azarenka's shots didn't have enough pace on them - without much spin, her ball had simply become too user-friendly for her opponents. Looking at the power of her shots in New York this past fortnight, I'm sure she used that extended break to become stronger than ever before, allowing her to hit the ball harder and push her opponents back. It's that extra punch in her shots that took Azarenka through to her first Grand Slam final in seven years, as well as her first since becoming a mother, where she won the opening set 6-1 and had a point for 3-0 before losing in three.
In the semifinals, Azarenka did something she had never done before - win a match against Serena Williams at a major. So while Azarenka lost the final, it's going to be interesting to see what she does next. When the season resumed a few weeks ago, Azarenka hadn't won a match all year, having lost her opening appearances at the two events she played before the pandemic. Out of nowhere, she won the Western & Southern Open, and she then went on this fantastic run at the US Open.
The way Azarenka played against Elise Mertens in her quarterfinal was amazing, and her tennis in the last two sets against Williams was even better. Coming from a set down against Williams in her semifinal, in what was a monumental match in an empty stadium, I think she played as well as I've ever seen her play. If there had been a crowd watching, they would have gone nuts.
Azarenka's level couldn't have been any higher in the first set against Osaka. Now that she's stronger, Azarenka can hit the ball harder with the same effort and that means more control. It's a safer ball but it has more on it and that's pushing people back. Azarenka beats people by hitting the ball hard and most of all deep so she pushes her opponents back, and she then gets a short ball, giving her a kill shot that she can put away. When she was offering up those user-friendly balls, it was Azarenka who was getting pushed back. Now she's doing it to others.
Seven years is a long wait between Grand Slam finals. Azarenka took time off for the pregnancy obviously and then she didn't play because of a custody battle. She played in a lot of Slams without getting anywhere. This shows her persistence. That persistence almost paid off in a big way.
But Osaka was a worthy winner. The Japanese was really crushing the ball all tournament. Her serve was frightening. With her first serve average speed surpassing even Williams, Osaka now has a huge weapon that she uses beautifully and I think this gives her more confidence and patience to wait for the right shot. That serve also allowed her to get back into the match when things were really going the wrong way for her. The way Osaka handled herself when getting hit off the court is what is truly impressive about her win. And of course winning the whole tournament while making a huge statement with her social justice activism. More power to her on and off the court.
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It was a shame, of course, that Osaka and Azarenka played in an empty Arthur Ashe Stadium, and the tournament was missing the players and the crowd coming together to create a crescendo of emotion. But I don't think the US Open, and the value of winning this title, was in any way diminished because of the silences between points. The players were creating their own energy.
Without a crowd, this was still the same special event, and the emotions of winning the US Open were still just as intense for Osaka, and so were the celebrations. When you win, you usually celebrate with the crowd, but what you really appreciate is when you get together with your friends, family and team, and you hug them. That's when it really sinks in and when you really let it rip. I'm happy for Osaka that she still got to enjoy that moment.